Devil May Care

Satan as depicted by Gustave Doré in an illustration for Paradise Lost (via Wikimedia)
Rebellion and the eternal adolescent

The high priests of the Church of Satan are on Twitter, and they are very, very hurt.

Social media is unsurpassed as an instrument for connecting us to the imbecility of the general public, and there is no public more general than those on Twitter. (Well . . . Facebook, maybe.) It is peerless as a theater in which the odd, the daft, and the emotionally incontinent can perform the ancient art of taking one’s self too seriously.

Founded by Anton LaVey, a kind of dark P. T. Barnum (to whom it has been suggested from time to time that I bear an unfortunate resemblance, though when it comes to pop Satanists, I much more closely favor Kerry King of Slayer), the Church of Satan exists today for . . . no obvious purpose. It has no theology (it is in fact stridently materialist) but instead traffics in that old-timey Nietzschean hogwash. You know the stuff: The Judeo-Christian tradition suppresses the true nature of man, who can be set free from the shackles of superstition only by reason and enlightenment understood so narrowly as to be nihilistic (“No one cares!” as High Priest — really — Peter H. Gilmore summarizes), authenticity is to be found in “outsider” romanticism, etc. It’s one part half-baked existentialism, one part Ayn Rand, one part 1980s metal act, and 100 percent adolescent.

And it’s goddamned sensitive, too. You’d think Satanists would be made of sterner stuff, or at least have a sense of humor about themselves. Everyone else has a sense of humor about them. They pleadingly advise “Members of the Press — Please use our media contact form and reference our press kit.” They complain that certain critics’ “statements show ignorance of our decades of published work.” Make an Alister Crowley joke and they’ll howl at length that Crowley’s similarly shadowy nonsense was not real Satanism: “We defined Satanism,” the church’s Twitter profile boasts. The church spends a fair amount of time heresy-hunting, distancing itself from “pseudo” Satanists and those would misuse the . . . good name . . . of Lucifer.

The Father of Lies is extraordinarily concerned about accuracy in media. “Satanic Temple”? No, that’s not the Church of Satan. That’s the other guys.

One wonders why it is, in Anno Domini 2018 — or Anno Satanas 52, by the Church of Satan’s rather self-important reckoning — that anybody would bother with all that ritual, cant, factionalism, hierarchy, etc., in the service of a creed of positive unbelief. One does not today need a supporting bureaucracy to safely practice atheism. The editor of National Review Online is an atheist. Richard Branson, Ian McKellen, Billy Joel: Nobody cares that they’re atheists. Hell (*), atheism can even provide the foundation for a pretty good career: Christopher Hitchens was a more or less full-time professional atheist (oddly enough, the only time I ever encountered him in person was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral), as is Richard Dawkins. Being an atheist is about as transgressive as being a tax lawyer. There’s a more pungent whiff of brimstone surrounding your average corporate lobbyist.

One does not today need a supporting bureaucracy to safely practice atheism. Nobody cares that you’re an atheist.

Consider the parallel case of homosexuality. In books such as Last Exit to Brooklyn and The City and the Pillar, one finds depictions of a genuine sexual underground of the sort that can barely be said to exist in the United States today. (Prostitution, I suppose, is the final frontier in sexual outlawry.) Having grown up in the 1980s and 1990s, I am just barely old enough to have had a glimpse at pre-domestication homosexuality (to the extent that a straight man in West Texas was likely to have done so), with its strange and poignant mix of shame and defiance. I can’t recall ever having known a gay man during those years who took seriously the prospect of monogamy, much less marriage. There was always a sense among gay men that homosexuality was about something more than the sex of one’s partners, that the prohibition, attenuated as it was even then, was part of the frisson. (That would explain the surprising number of “gay” men I knew in those years who are today happily married to women, a phenomenon we are supposed to studiously ignore.) That led to some very self-destructive modes of life, and I have to imagine that the modern, bourgeois, marriage-minded expression of homosexuality is healthier, even if a few atavistic types romanticize the old bathhouse culture the way some New Yorkers purport to long for sleazy, pre-Giuliani Manhattan.

Which is to say, homosexuality grew up, the same way atheism grew up, the same way a great many subcultures grow up. (Blanche Barton, a prominent figure in the Church of Satan, calls Satanism a “lifestyle.” Just so.) There are a few outlaw subcultures left: The real world of 1-percenter motorcycle gangs is not much like the soap opera that was Sons of Anarchy, and mainstream society recoils in horror (rightly and understandably) from the facial tattoos that characterize certain Central American gangs transplanted to the United States. The social outlaws today are most often the literal outlaws, and there is no more outsider-ish a group of outsiders than felons. At the other end of the social spectrum, Opus Dei retains a kind of dark fascination for the Da Vinci Code set — and it is genuinely countercultural — while the so-called alt-right dabbles in fascism from within the warm cocoon of Internet anonymity. There’s plenty to abominate about a Richard Spencer, but he is genuinely transgressive in a way your undergraduate lesbian-Marxist staging of Coriolanus was not.

We have become in most ways a much more conformist society than we were only a few decades ago, if only because capitalism (which is to say, liberalism) has a Borg-like ability to assimilate what seemed immune to assimilation only a few years ago. I do not think Hubert Selby could possibly have imagined a post-transition transsexual Bruce Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair over the headline “Call Me Caitlyn.” And he had quite an imagination. If we had grown half as libertarian on economic issues as on sexual ones, it would be a different world indeed.

Banks can be directly regulated in a way that mores and manners can’t. But if our sense of propriety now accommodates a much less formal way of dressing, it enforces the new norms no less energetically. (Unless you are in Manhattan below 14th Street, in which case you can get away with a little more.) From Brooklyn hipsters to the nice people of Dallas, who desperately want to be perceived as urban sophisticates, the new uniform is simply a more comfortable replacement (more slovenly, many would say) for the old uniform. Cargo pants are the new grey flannel suit.

But some people — some men, especially — never quite age out of adolescence. I knew a journalist well into his fifties whose emotional life was organized around showing up his business-executive father and the class of men for which he believed his father stood. (His father was in fact a generous and liberal-minded man.) He did a great deal of damage to himself — economic, physical, and emotional — in the cause of rebelling against a social order that, if it ever really existed, hadn’t existed since the early 1960s. (It is a myth that John Kennedy changed men’s fashion by forgoing a hat on the day of his inauguration; in reality, he wore a silk top hat like the toff he was.) But being an outsider, as he imagined himself to be, was fundamental to his sense of himself.

Satan, in John Milton’s telling, is the compleat adolescent: a self-important, puritanical monster of pride whose motto, Non serviam, might well be rendered, ‘You can’t make me!’

Satan, in John Milton’s telling, is the compleat adolescent: a self-important, puritanical monster of pride whose motto, Non serviam, might well be rendered, “You can’t make me!” He was a giant middle finger raised to fathers, and father figures, everywhere. That was the great appeal of punk rock, of Johnny Rotten’s rock ’n’ roll swindle: “This will drive your parents crazy! Buy it!” (Someone once described the purpose of advertising as creating a sense of discomfort that can be relieved with a purchase.) It is also the animating principle of Trump-ism: “He drives the media crazy! He horrifies the liberals! He irritates the people I want to irritate!”

The Church of Satan says it takes no political stances: “Most of our members are political pragmatists,” says the Twitter account of the Church of Satan, which, hilariously enough, exists.


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— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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